Movies like "The Other Sister," the story of two mentally challenged young adults who find happiness with each other, are manipulative in the worst way. It's a form of cinematic blackmail, if you will. How could any decent viewer fail to lend support to a story of handicapped individuals able to break parental bonds, overcome challenges and embark on a "normal" life together? What's wrong with emotional uplift? Or, as non-readers frequently complain about journalists' priorities: What's wrong with good news?
The bad news, we'll tell you up front, is that director and co-screenwriter Garry Marshall makes it easy to dislike "The Other Sister," from the outset. The very first frame, significantly, is a glowing goldfish, swimming aimlessly around a fishbowl, a great big symbol for the overprotected, isolated fate of the protagonists whose lives are about to unfold. It's a sure hint that Marshall, the studio veteran who helmed 1990's "Pretty Woman," isn't about to let anything like subtlety get in the way of all the love, laughter and, yes, tears, to come.
Nor are Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi, as the two young lovers, willing to turn in anything less than showy look-at-me performances, sure to soften the hearts of Academy members at Oscar time next year. If a series of tics -- Lewis' halting speech and ever-widening eyes, and Ribisi's concentrated blinking and squinting -- don't define character, then what does? That must have been the thinking here, at least.
Lewis, an early-'90s sensation who seems to have flamed out with "Strange Days," is Carla Tate, a slightly retarded 24-year-old who has spent the last umpteen years under the influence of special education at a boarding school. Delayed parental guilt sets her free, and a flashback reveals that dad (Tom Skerritt) once was too drunk to acknowledge Carla's disability, and mom (Diane Keaton) was too uptight. Her father, now in recovery, has come to bring his daughter home to San Francisco, where, with any luck, she'll fit into family life.
The secondary characters, perhaps not surprisingly, are as one-dimensional as the leads. Pop is all gracious understanding, working overtime to make sure all get along. His wife, although vowing to "make it up" to the least eligible bachelorette of the family, is as stiff as ever. Their other daughters, too, are little more than contrasting cardboard cut-outs -- one's an all-American cutie, giddy and engaged; the other's a gay workaholic and fashion blade.
Multiple lives are permanently disrupted when Carla falls for the kind Danny, also slightly retarded, at a vocational school. He has a father-funded apartment, a part-time job at a bakery and a passion for marching-band music. (He beats to a different drummer.) The two, dressed as a swan and a puppy, go together to a Halloween party and proceed to fall in love. He has an eccentric neighbor and friend, too, a combination musician and Vietnam veteran played by Hector Elizondo. Colorful stuff.
It's all downhill from there, as old family frictions erupt and then melt away. "The Other Sister" is sappy, unrealistic and about as funny and romantic as Todd Solondz's "Happiness." And, yes, if you must ask, I feel really bad about saying so.